So, I’ve been thinking about Howard Rhiengold’s book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. There is an online book group on the ISENet Ning dedicated to this, so I decided to join. (You will notice I am behind already.) I miss my old book group and am in the market for a new one. I’d really like an in person one, but this is a good start.
I’ve read the intro and first chapter (Attention). The idea of being mindful of ones attention is worth any amount of time and effort anyone wants to spend on it, in my opinion. Because, seriously, who doesn’t think their attention is not what they would like it to be? With email on our phones, the expectation that we will reply quickly regardless of time of day, and then the potentially fun stuff all over the place, it’s no surprise many people have real withdraw symptoms if they turn that device off.
Since beginning the chapter on attention, I’ve been much more aware of my own attention or lack of it. I think there are comparisons to be made here to the food journaling for weight loss. I am pretty sure I remember seeing studies out there that supported the idea that just writing down what you eat, without trying to change, has benefit. I imagine this is about attention and mindfulness.
So, just the other morning I was at work and had too many disparate things which needed my attention. I tried my usual list making strategy for regaining some control, but really what was called for was focus. I stopped and thought deliberately about what activity would allow me to regain focus. I thought that if I could pick an activity to which I could easily or automatically give my full attention, it would be like restarting my computer. I came up with reading. It is, for me, an activity which I associate with concentration (assuming I’m reading something non-fluffy). So, I opened my book and read a few more pages of Net Smart; I was kind of thinking about it anyway. It really worked, in that my brain settled into a manageable swirl rather than the crazy one.
In thinking about my own attention levels, I notice that certain activities or ways I use technology encourage focus and certain encourage skimming, surface looking, and lack of focus. Both of these forms of interacting have their place I believe. However, each has an appropriate time and place. The metacognitive piece is the key here. It’s important for me to know how I learn. Sometimes it’s ok for me to let myself disappear down the rabbit hole of web surfing or pinterest wandering, even though I’m never getting that time back. It is serving as eye candy or brain rest when I can’t nap. At other times, it is a powerful form of procrastination that is allowing me to get in my own way. This extends way beyond technology.
For me setting serves as a very powerful cue. So, I know that as soon as I sit on the couch, even if I have work tools out, I am very likely not to work. However, if I sit at the dining room table, I am more likely to keep my attention on the task at hand. Most of this is really about procrastinating on tasks I don’t want to do. If my desire is solid, it doesn’t matter if I am on the couch. Plus, it’s so comfy there. I might allow my attention to wander periodically to take a brain break but my break will not turn into the entire evening. What I noticed is that even the little bit of attention I am giving to my own attention–naming it mostly–is effective in terms of helping me make active decisions about my technology use.
This made me think about what we are doing for our students in this regard. In 5th grade, I can honestly say that I spent time repeatedly talking about and having discussions with my students about that metacognitive bit. We talked about habits of mind, knowing our after school schedules, working in appropriate locations, and the variety of “good” answers there were to all these questions. I am never shy about sharing my own struggles to get things done on time with my students, and we had some good and honest discussions about this sort of thing. If I didn’t admit to having to work at this, I might talk at my students, but it would be just another lecture that missed the mark.